By Lucy M. Pritchett

Shanna learned about the unpredictability of life after one chance encounter. Photos by Patti Hartog

When someone tells you her turning point came during a car ride, you might jump to the conclusion that there had been some sort of tragic accident that caused a chain reaction of events. But I was happy to learn that Shanna Ward’s turning point had no such story behind it.

Instead, the story goes that as a senior at the University of Louisville majoring in political science, Shanna ended up sharing a ride to Frankfort on her first day there as a legislative intern. The driver was Carol Butler, who then served as director of special events and projects at the university. The upshot of their conversation during that car ride to the Capitol was that Shanna accepted an intern job in Carol’s department.

Goodbye to a life in politics; hello to the world of event planning.

“I had been on debate teams in high school, and I think that put the idea in my head that I wanted a career in politics,” Shanna says. “Once I started working with Carol, I really got the bug for planning big events and special functions, and I realized that I was better at that than politics. I worked on events at UofL such as the commencement ceremonies and the Grawemeyer Awards. It was fun to be on the backside and build something that would make an impression on people and that they enjoyed.”

After graduation, Shanna, now 39, interned with Kentucky Derby Festival for two years and then was offered a full-time position as an event manager.

After discovering her true talent, Shanna didn’t think twice about abandoning a career in politics. 

Although she has worked on many events during her time with the Festival, one of her favorites is the Ford Motor Company Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. (Be sure to read our story on Shanna and this year’s winner in the April print issue of Today’s Woman.)

“These kids come from all over Kentucky and Southern Indiana,” Shanna says. “They are amazing. The Spelling Bee is open to students in fourth through eighth grades. The ones who make it to this event represent their home counties. It is a free event, and we provide all the study guide materials to the students.

“My job is to communicate with the the school coordinators, organize the materials, make arrangements for the judges, and write the script for the master of ceremonies, plus attend the event of course.”

Working with the Kentucky Derby Festival has given Shanna an opportunity to develop strong connections with the people she meets in her job.  

The day of the Spelling Bee, Shanna works with the students to put them at ease. “I pretty much act as a cheerleader to the kids. This can be stressful for them. I let them know that whatever the outcome of the competition, ‘You are already winners.’”

When Shanna looks back at the start of her career — a car ride — she notes, “Sometimes the simplest decision turns out to be the one to change your course in life. It’s not always the big moments that make for change. The little decisions can have a big impact, too.”

This year’s Spelling Bee will be held on March 5 at 11am in the Bomhard Theater, Kentucky Center for the Arts. The event is free and open to the public.